Painting Watercolors on Location

Painting Watercolors on Location

by Tom Hill


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A comprehensive workshop approach presented by a master watercolorist, this guide features 11 step-by-step demonstrations filled with valuable methods and techniques for achieving striking on-site watercolor compositions. Beautiful examples and locations — including the Greek island of Santorini, a desert oasis, and a Midwest farmhouse — provide a wealth of inspiration as author and artist Tom Hill demonstrates how to paint intelligently, selectively edit a scene, and more.
Painting Watercolors on Location shows developing artists not only how to acquire better understanding and techniques for painting on location but also how to incorporate these helpful practices into their everyday routines. Suitable for art students and artists at the intermediate level and up, these pointers include suggestions for choosing the correct on-site equipment, rendering accurate drawings, selecting and mixing colors, forming textures, and other methods for creating exciting and expressive watercolor paintings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486837543
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 11/13/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,203,837
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

A noted representational watercolorist of Mexican and cowboy figures, Tom Hill was born in Texas, raised in California, and resides in Arizona. He was an artist at Hollywood's Universal Studios and a staff artist for the Chicago Tribune, and he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. A member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Academy of Design, he is the author of several bestselling guides to watercolor painting.

Read an Excerpt



Your indoor painting spot or studio can be anything from a corner of the kitchen table to an elaborate, specially designed studio building, with every feature and comfort an artist could wish for. Your outdoor "studio" can also run the gamut from minimal to elaborate. The big difference is that it must be mobile — you have to be able to take it to the painting location!

What equipment does one need to be able to go out and paint successfully at the site? As with so many other choices in life, it all depends.

At the very least, you could have a small water-color pan set (like you had back in grade school), a little watercolor paper tablet, a brush and a small bottle of water . It's possible it could all fit into your jacket pocket or your purse! It's also possible that travelling this lightly, you might have to sit on the ground and hold your painting in your lap. A good painting result is still obtainable, even with this small amount of painting equipment.

At the other end of the scale, you might have a large truck, van or trailer, wherein you could carry nearly as many painting amenities as you'd have in a home studio, and could paint while inside this vehicle, away from bugs, weather, onlookers; etc. Most of us, I suspect, will want a mobile "studio" somewhere between these two extremes.

In general, your on-location setups will depend on your way of working, where your painting spot is located, and how much time and resources you have available.

A Word About Materials

This book is concerned with painting directly from the subject — how to manage this type of painting and succeed at it — and does not delve too deeply into watercolor painting techniques. There are many fine books devoted to techniques, so there is no need to cover that subject here. However, I do want to talk about the materials that I use most often, especially for on-location watercolor painting.

Watercolor Paint

I prefer moist tube colors to the harder ones in block or pan form. I find them easier to load on the brush, easier to control. My choice of hues is related to the solar spectrum-the colors you see in a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. As artists' colors don't quite match the solar ones, I get as close as I can, with a "cool" and "warm" version of each.

• Reds: Scarlet Lake (warm), Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose (cool).

• Oranges: mixed from yellows and reds, Burnt Sienna (grayed red-orange).

• Yellows: Lemon or Hansa (cool), New Gamboge (warm), Raw Sienna (grayed middle).

• Greens: Mixed from yellows and blues, also Winsor or Thalo (cool).

• Blues: Ultramarine (warm), Cobalt (close to a true blue), Winsor or Thalo, Manganese or Cerulean (all cool).

• Violets: Mixed from reds and blues.

Most of my painting is done with only five or six of the above hues, occasionally more.


I don't use a lot of brushes when I paint in water-color, preferring to do most of the work with only two or three. I'll have a 1½-inch, 1-inch and 5/8-inch oxhair or synthetic hair flat brush, plus a couple of sable hair round watercolor brushes, maybe a no. 10 or a no. 8, plus a no. 6. These are more expensive than oxhair or synthetic, but perform beautifully if properly cleaned and cared for. I might also use a no. 6 rigger or script brush for linear strokes. Sometimes I'll use a ½-inch oil painting bristle brush (called a "bright") for scrubbing out or lightening previously painted areas.


I've found it best to use the handmade or mould-made papers, rather than the machine-made ones. One of my favorites is Arches, a French mould-made paper that comes in different surface textures and weights. I also like Lanaquarelle, Fabriano, Winsor & Newton, etc. I often use a 140-lb. cold-press (medium texture) paper, but I also enjoy painting on the other common surface textures of hot-press (smoother texture) and rough.

Most often, with 140-lb. paper, I'll stretch the sheet prior to painting on it. I do this by soaking the paper in clean water long enough that it expands slightly. While it's still damp, I staple or gum-tape the sheet around the edges to my watercolor board. When it's dry it becomes taut and easier to paint on, because it resists buckling and wrinkling.

Other Items

I like to use two water containers when painting — one for clean, the other for dirty water. Absorbent paint rags or facial tissues are most useful. A common, cellulose kitchen sponge and a small natural "cosmetic" sponge are useful, too. I use a pocket or mat knife for scraping and squeegeeing. I like to use a smooth-surface paper when making my drawings and composition plans and sketches, and usually use softer lead drawing pencils. I like Pink Pearl erasers as well as kneaded erasers — both remove graphite from the watercolor paper after the painting is finished.

How to Carry It All

How you transport your painting gear and materials to the site where you paint depends a lot on how you work, what size paintings you make, how far you must go, whether you walk or drive, etc. If you prefer to paint small paintings, then you might be able to get everything you need into a little backpack, an attaché case, a camera equipment bag, or even a large purse. If you work larger, your carrying arrangement will have to be larger, too.

On this and the following pages are shown several solutions that I've used or seen used. No doubt there are other ways, as well. A thought: Arrange all your painting things in a pile or group. This will give you an idea of what size case or bag you'll need. A visit to a well-stocked luggage shop might surprise you, for the choices and sizes of bags and cases seem endless and you may find exactly what will fit your requirements.



I can remember, as a child, seeing pictures and paintings that depicted the old fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and usually featuring the fishing boats, with their tall sails, the harbor with its various moods and the drama and clutter of the fishermen and sailors at their work. I loved the whole subject! Some of that activity and that feeling were still in evidence when I first went there to paint in the 1970s.

Recently, I returned to Gloucester to try my hand at painting the scene again. Many changes had occurred to the harbor area in the twenty years that had elapsed. Everything seemed neater and more organized than I'd remembered. No sail-powered fishing boats were to be seen. Mostly orderly wharfs, warehouses and marinas, with locked gates and high fences — certain to keep out on-location painters! However, the harbor is convoluted, with many little ins and outs, and in one of these I found a good harbor subject and a place lo set up my easel and get to work painting the scene.

It was a day in late September with the leaves just giving a hint of the fall weather that was imminent. The cool air of early morning was soon warmed by a cheerful sun climbing toward the sky's zenith — a great day for painting right from the scene in front of me! And, as you can see in the photo, it was a scene with a wealth of subject matter from which to paint.

My Painting Goal

My goal was to paint a watercolor that captured the atmosphere of that little corner of the harbor as well as the ambience of the day. But with such an abundance of material, I felt compelled to edit some of it, rearrange pans and simplify detail, so the composition focused on what 1wanted the painting to say.



The Grand Teton mountains in western Wyoming rise, like some enormous, ragged stone wall, thousands of feet above the valley floor. Almost overwhelming in their grandeur, they are indeed the "picture-perfect" subject — a subject many artists have reveled in trying to capture. These formidable peaks, with conifer forests, meadows, streams and a string of jewel-like lakes at their base, offer timeless and inspiring picture possibilities!

My first attempts at painting this subject matter were done as demonstrations for an on-location watercolor class. As I struggled to successfully paint the complicated subject matter, realized how much I didn't know about the subject — and how much I was learning with every attempt. The old wisdom about having to really know and understand one's subject to be able to authoritatively interpret it in paint, came back to me with a rush!

After the class, I returned another time to paint what you'll see here. It's probably more knowledgeably painted than my first attempts, but I know there's still a wealth of things to be learned about painting these incredible mountains!

My Painting Goal

I hoped to interpret in watercolor the feeling of pristine and crystal-clear cleanliness that the setting offers — a setting that is a real challenge to paint successfully, while avoiding a "pretty postcard" result.



Southern Arizona, where I live, is part of a desert that covers a large part of Arizona and extends far south into Mexico. It's not as dry as many deserts, but water is still precious.

So, a natural and permanent body of water is rare and possesses a jewel-like quality. Not far from my house is such a phenomenon — an oasis in the desert. Fed by underground streams from nearby mountains, the water wells up to the surface, forming a small lake.

Over the years, grass, reeds, cottonwood and sycamore trees have somehow arrived at this oasis, taken root and prospered. In addition, desert palms have grown in profusion, their fan-like fronds waving in the passing breeze against a bright blue sky, while the many shapes created are reflected in the calm waters below. Surrounding the oasis is the desert, surviving as it always has, and lit by brilliant sunshine. The setting is at once arresting, as well as visually and emotionally exciting to the eye, and begs for an interpretation in watercolor!

My Painting Goal

I wanted to capture in paint the wonderful feeling of contrast between the warm, dry desert and the cooler lushness of the foliage, growing beside and sustained by the oasis.



How many times have you seen a landscape, cityscape or seascape that, though well painted, seemed to be missing something? Often, I've found that the missing ingredient in such a painting is people! The scene looks deserted. Of course, not every painting needs figures to make it complete, but most scenes are improved by the addition of even one figure — especially if that figure, however small and simply indicated, looks convincing and seems to fit into the scene. Adding appropriate figures to your paintings will do at least two things: (1) give scale to the scene, and (2) help make the scene seem "alive." Figures, by the way they are attired or by their pose or action, help your painting show such things as weather, time of day or season, and can act as centers of interest.

Lots of carefully observed drawing from live subjects, learning from your mistakes and studying the work of past masters — these are ways to become proficient at painting figures. However, in this chapter I'd like to suggest some relatively easy ways to indicate smaller or incidental figures in your work, such as the two shown in the painting at left.

When you're painting on location and want to include some of the people you see in the scene, you can be sure none of them will be staying in one pose very long. Try to capture the pose you like with a very quick "gesture" sketch to record the general proportion and attitude of the figure. Practice helps. The sequence below shows how to go from a gesture sketch to small, finished figures.

For a painter, there's no substitute for the years of drawing and painting that bring knowledge and expertise, especially when drawing or painting large representational figures. Still, many artists learn to draw and paint convincing smaller figures in a fairly short period of time — figures that seem to fit into the scene and not look wooden or contrived. On these pages are some examples that may be helpful, especially if you are painting on location and have to work from what you see before you.

Although the typical "stick" figure looks stiff and mechanical, keeping a bare-bones skeleton in mind as you do your quick gesture sketch can be very helpful. My simplified skeletal-gesture sketch tries to account for three major shapes: the head, the rib cage and the pelvic bones, or hips. The various angles that these elements take, plus the lines of the spine, legs and arms, go a long way toward establishing a correct framework upon which you can "hang" the flesh, hair and clothing.

Study the figure sketches here , as they go from quick gesture sketch to final color application. Note how lines used for spines, arms and legs are never straight, but curved. Details on small figures like this are not needed, and would probably detract from the rest of your painting .

Don't expect perfection immediately. You learn by looking, practicing, seeing your own mistakes and overcoming them. Soon, you'll be painting figures while on location, even after your "model" has left the scene!

Painting in a Balinese Market

On a recent trip to the exotic island of Bali, I discovered that the local open-air market was very near the inn where we were staying.

As you can see in the photo above, the market was loaded with exciting colors, shapes and plenty of Figures — great subject matter for any artist! Although there was no problem with walking through it, I couldn't set up my easel and paint in all that activity. So I walked through the market, recording what I saw on my sketchpad. Then I retreated to the nearby inn and worked out a design for my composition. Then I made the painting, photographing it as I painted, for the step-by-step demonstration reproduced in this chapter. I was even able to make several quick trips over to the market to verify or add information needed for the painting.

My Painting Goal

My goal this time was to take the chaos of the market scene and convert it into a well-designed, visually exciting painting, that, though edited and re-arranged, still conveys all the charm and feeling of the market, but in a less confusing way.



The ancient town of Ronda, in southern Spain, sits atop a high hill. This hill is split through its highest part by a deep and impressive gorge, with part of the town to the north side, part to the south. Over the centuries that people have been living here, several bridges have been built across the canyon. The oldest, built at a lower level, where the gorge is less wide and not as deep, goes back to the time of the Romans and is still used. The bridge we're concerned with was built at the very apex of the hill, with the steep gorge dropping almost straight down. It is the largest and "newest" — even though it, too, is very, very old.

When I first actually saw this structure, I was overwhelmed by the drama of the bridge and its setting. From nearly every angle I looked at it, there were great views for painting subjects. So I wandered around, making very rough sketches of the bridge, trying to see which view was most appealing. Trouble was, they were all appealing!

I decided on an angle from the bridge's southwest corner, looking north. From this spot I could draw and paint almost unnoticed and take enough time to solve the drawing problems of scale and perspective, before actually starting to paint.

My Painting Goal

I hoped to capture some of the breathtaking feeling of the deep gorge and the antique massiveness of the old stone bridge.


Excerpted from "Painting Watercolors on Location"
by .
Copyright © 1996 Tom Hill.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

INDEX, 128,

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